Saturday, August 8, 2009

(Re-)defining Expectations

"'What shall I do now? What shall I do?'
'I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
With my hair down, so.' 'What shall we do tomorrow?'
'What shall we ever do?'
…We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms his prison…”

- T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

It was Saturday morning - hot and dry and cloudless - and I was sitting in the passenger seat of my friend's car, garnishing a bit of pink ribbon to attach to a gift. We were on our way to a baby shower and, as we wound through the rugged foothills of the Catalina mountains, she mentioned an article her husband had read the night before stating that the use of antidepressants has nearly doubled in the last year.

The news of this increase surprised me, but only mildly.

“How is it that we live in one of the most prosperous nations in the world," my friend asked, "and yet 15 million Americans – the vast majority of them women – are depressed?”

It was a familiar question, but still worth asking.

Among other things, this statistic proves that wealth and well-being are not only unrelated; they are often mutually exclusive. Given that we live in a society where, as TS Eliot's The Wasteland so hauntingly illustrates, people are more dependent on technology than each other; families are fractured; and sex is often severed from true intimacy, it is not surprising that so many people are depressed.

That afternoon I read several mainstream articles on the subject and found that most, including this one from Today’s Christian Woman, approach the topic from the somewhat predictable perspective of trying to ‘get women help’ via a variety of very familiar resources - from increased exercise and nutrition to prescription medication.

The reasons for diagnosed depression are manifold: in some cases depression is attributable to ‘low serotonin levels’ (a neurological condition which anti-depressant medications, SSRIs, are designed to address); in others, symptoms are incidental – the result of job loss, relational stress, an illness or death.

Most of the articles, whether secular or religious, seemed to follow the same thread, aiming to reduce the negative stigma associated with prescription medication while suggesting that, in addition to the standard formulas, favorable outcomes are more likely achieved by those who also make more ‘me’ time; express their emotions; and practice thinking positively.

…But none attempted to address the question beneath it all: never mind the clinical causes and symptomatic treatment of depression – why are so many people depressed in the first place? And why are the numbers increasing so drastically?

Let me make clear that I would not presume to know THE ANSWER - nor do I believe there is just one. However, I would like to spend some time meditating on the subject in several series installments.

If my own experience may serve as any indication, I believe women – and specifically Christian women – are suffering from depression in part because their expectations for what life – and in particular, the Christ-life – should look like are in dire need of redefinition.

We not only expect ‘happiness,’ we feel entitled to it - especially those of us who have made what we deem to be ‘morally correct’ lifestyle choices (such as putting marriage before sex). We want satisfaction in place of lasting character… forgetting that character is never, ever free, but must be earned. (To be reminded of this, simply revisit any of the classics.)

We define ‘happiness’ very narrowly as: getting what we want. Then if and, more accurately, when, our plans are foiled, we easily form elaborate ‘victim narratives' for ourselves… concluding that God cannot really love us; that He cannot really be good.

We think, if only He will improve my circumstances, then – and only THEN – I can be happy, forgetting all along that He longs to work through our circumstances to grant us a state of holiness which cannot be otherwise achieved; and which is far superior (and ultimately more satisfying) than anything which the 'perfect' set of circumstances can produce.

If there is any hope of mitigating, and perhaps even eliminating, the incidences of depression in our lives, we must come to expect that 'happiness' or fulfillment does not, cannot mean getting our own way, but letting Him have His.


Lindsay said...

It all comes back to Hebrews 12! :)

HM Baker said...

Lindsay, You are so very right. "For [our fathers] disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but [God] {disciplines us} for {our} good, so that we may share His holiness" (Heb. 12.6). I think this is perhaps the single greatest test of the Christian life - learning to view hardship as evidence that God loves us. Otherwise, why would He bother giving us opportunities to gain His character? Love you, friend!